Beyond Buildings


Selling Architecture

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Is she designing a fire escape? Or is she a client admiring the fire stairs on the three-apartment building she has commissioned? In either case, the image in the Wells Fargo Advisors advertisement currently appearing in general interest magazines is absurd. “With you when you need help designing your future,” the text proclaims. They trumpet their experience and the fact that you can trust them, though they say little about the future. That seems appropriate to the image. What Wells Fargo shows us looks more like the past: a balsa wood block with shallow openings etched into it, the fire escape, the risers lovingly rendered as fat pipes on the roof, and a few stubby trees gesturing in front of a green walls, the only color in the whole ecru composition.



Wells Fargo ad.


The woman gazing so lovingly at this absurdly banal object wears a purple sweater, has white hair combed and gelled back, wears thin, green-framed glasses, and has some sort of key chain around her neck. The look communicates designer: composed, workerlike, and concentrated, which makes me think she is not the client. In the background, another woman, her hair gathered up in a bun, looks at what might be another drawing, while the outline of a large, steel-framed window contains the two in what appears to be an airy, white-walled loft. It is not a bad composition, other than the complete incongruity of the object that is the woman’s focus of attention.


Mr. Blanding's dream house

Mr. Blanding's dream house (1948)


What does this tell us about the place of architecture in popular perception? That architecture is a discipline is considered a wonderful thing, but that buildings are forgettable. It seems nobody actually looks at drawings or models, letting themselves instead be persuaded by the designer’s charm about the worth of what the Ordainer of Place is proposing. Let’s face it, only those ordained in the order of architectural arcana actually have even an inkling of what a plan or section really means. What’s worse, we are also the only ones who apparently care what the result will look like. With a few exceptions, clients want the building just to be functional, comfortable, and affordable.


Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy

Matthew Broderick in The Cable Guy (1996)


Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day

Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (1996)


I would bet that Wells Fargo and its advertising agency just assumed that readers would concentrate on the woman, her look, and her intent gaze, and would not even notice the object of her affections. Instead, they would see themselves as her. If the building is any evidence, she needs a lot of help designing. Given the horrid state of the built environment, however, her financial future would seem reasonably secure if she keeps churning out such ill-formed tenements, as long as Wells Fargo helps her do so cheaply, efficiently, and persuasively.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.